Those Almighty Scholars

Don’t get me wrong: I deeply appreciate that our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition emphasizes intelligent, scholarly engagement with Scripture and theological tradition.  I love it that John Calvin, the fountainhead of our particular stream of Christianity, was a scholar and not a cleric.  I appreciate that our colleges and seminaries are populated with biblical scholars who seek to understand and apply Scripture.

But I am disturbed when church members, ruling elders, deacons, teaching elders (a.k.a. pastors), and even church councils mentally place “scholars” at the top of the authority heap.  It’s disturbing because our polity gives no formal authority to “scholars” for decision making.  We have church councils (sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly) with all their appendages, made up of teaching and ruling elders, who discern together Christ’s will for the church.  We also have a body of confessions that articulate our Reformed heritage and provide pretty clear boundaries when it comes to doctrine and practice.

It’s especially disappointing when councils charged with making rulings defer to an amorphous body of unnamed “scholars,” instead of making judgment calls on their own.  Such was the case in the Synod of the Pacific’s Permanent Judicial Commission’s (SPJC) ruling in the Parnell et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco case.  In their September 16-17 hearing, the SPJC ruled that one of its presbyteries was justified in clearing for ordination a candidate who did not meet constitutional and confessional requirements.  Without discussing the merits of the case, it is disheartening to read this in the SPJC’s final decision (p. 3):

Presbytery did not commit doctrinal error in its decision to accept the departure and to ordain the candidate. The record and trial testimony make clear that interpretations of scripture and the confessions, and the conclusions that result from those interpretations, have not been uniform in the history and practice of the Church. Nor are those interpretations uniform among theologians and biblical scholars within the denomination, as witness testimony and the record make clear. (Emphasis added)

This kind of thinking just doesn’t belong in our polity.  But it doesn’t happen solely in mainline circles either.  I often hear Christians of all stripes appeal to the almighty scholars who apparently know everything and who are the final word on every matter.  But what if scholars sometimes err?  What if the human intellect (which is subject to sin and corruption and prone to rebel against God’s governance) is actually fallible?  What if scholars, just like the rest of us redeemed sinners, start with preconceived attitudes and form their opinions around them?  I know that lots of us Protestants don’t have bishops or a magisterium to guard doctrinal integrity, but could we at least stick to our own authority and polity structure?  Can we at the very least adhere to our confessional and scriptural tradition?

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3 thoughts on “Those Almighty Scholars

  1. Hello Ray, thank you very much for this excellent reminder about where PCUSA authority (and duty) resides. Just one fine point: the “scholars” to which the Presbytery of San Francisco pointed for authority in the so-called progressive view were not unnamed. A significant number of Presbyterian seminary presidents showed their support for Amendment 10-A. And at trial in the Parnell case, both sides had scholars testify: Jack Rogers and Mark Achtemeier for the presbytery, Dale Bruner, Robert Gagnon, and John Thompson for the complainants. Nevertheless, your point is on target. Good grief, the connection between the PCUSA and so-called Presbyterian seminaries is so tenuous now as to be laughable. It really is the job of presbyters and teaching elders to do the careful biblical study and theological work that inform the church, “according to the Word of God.” My sense is that liberals have put such a cloud of fairy dust in peoples’ faces that they believe they cannot understand the Word: it is too complicated, too encompassing, too hard to keep up. And so the people in the pew are happy to let “scholars” tell them what to think. It is sad, but it fuels my passion for bringing the Word to life. I have blogged on this topic at http://wordtolife.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/the-synod-pjc-said-what/ and http://wordtolife.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/one-last-time-it%e2%80%99s-the-essentials-stupid/ —Mary Naegeli, Counsel for the Complainants, Parnell v. San Francisco.

  2. Have we really reached the point where any argument will do, as long as it supports our views? The reference to scholars was part of a list of assertions about practice and beliefs throughout the denomination. There is no sign in the decision that scholars were given undue weight over elders.

    The real issue with the Synod decision, which the GAPJC may choose to look at, is whether PJC’s should make their own theological judgements. The synod PJC seems to be taking the position that it’s job is to decide whether the Presbytery acted reasonably, but not to make an independent theological judgement. The fact that the Presbytery took a position that is accepted widely (although certainly not universally, and probably not even by a majority) is relevant to considering whether they made a responsible decision or not.

    Frankly, I don’t want PJCs making theological judgements. That responsibility is assigned to presbyteries and the GA. However they can certainly review whether a presbytery has properly reviewed the issues, and acted reasonably.

    I realize you disagree with the presbytery here, but I fear you’re willing to accept any argument and any process that will stop ordination of homosexuals, whether those arguments make sense or the processes are justified under our polity.

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